The Christian owners of a hotel are being prosecuted for a crime because they defended their faith and criticised Islam in a debate with a Muslim guest.
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Police arrested Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang, who run the Bounty House Hotel in Liverpool, after a Muslim woman complained that she was offended by comments made on 20 March.
According to newspaper reports, the debate involved discussion of whether Jesus was the Son of God or just a minor prophet of Islam.
Newspapers also report that the debate included comments that Mohammed was a warlord and Muslim dress for women was a form of bondage.
However, the facts of the case are disputed.
The pair are now being prosecuted for a “religiously aggravated” public order offence. A criminal trial is set for 8 and 9 December at Liverpool Magistrates’ Court.
A major client of the couple’s hotel has ceased referring guests because of the allegations. This has led to a 80 per cent drop in the hotel’s income, leaving the couple in financial difficulty.
The Christian Institute is funding the Vogelenzangs’ legal defence. Its spokesman, Mike Judge, said: “We believe there are significant free speech and religious liberty issues at stake.”
The couple’s lawyer, David Whiting, said: “Ben and Sharon do not accept they were threatening, abusive or insulting.
“They are committed Christians and it is the defence’s contention that they have every right to defend their religious beliefs and explain those beliefs to others who do not hold similar views.”
The couple were arrested and charged in July under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 and Section 31 (1) (c) and (5) of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.
If convicted the couple face a maximum fine of £5,000 and a criminal record.
Lawyers have expressed growing concern at the way public order offences are being used to limit free speech. The laws were introduced to deal with yobbish disorder in the streets, not limit robust debate.
Neil Addison, a criminal barrister and author of a legal textbook on harassment law, said: “The purpose of the Public Order Act is to prevent disorder, but I’m very concerned that the police are using it merely because someone is offended.
“It should be used where there is violence, yobbish behaviour or gratuitous personal abuse. It should never be used where there has been a personal conversation or debate with views firmly expressed.
“If someone is in a discussion and they don’t like what they are hearing, they can walk away.”
He added that the police had a legal duty under the Human Rights Act to defend free speech “and I think they are forgetting that”.
A police spokesman said: “Merseyside Police can confirm that Benjamin Vogelenzang and Sharon Vogelenzang, both of Fazakerley, were charged with a religiously-aggravated public order offence on 29 July 2009. This follows an incident on 20 March 2009.”